Living In The Future We Were Sold

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We’re living in the future, and it’s lousy.

So-called AI is just Ultra-Clippy being shoehorned into everything that will temporarily goose stock prices. We’ve got computerized cars that allow us to bluescreen while driving, and universal automated cars are many dreams and lawsuits away. Phones gave us something like Star Trek gadgets, but we’re using them to become depressed by doomscrolling. I could make a comment on the Cybertruck, but honestly, that seems pointless.

We’ve got a lot of things that we think are futuristic, and a lot of them are lame, terrible, pointless, or have side effects. Plus you know, we’ve got climate change, Nazis, and pandemics as well.

The future isn’t what it used to be? No, the problem is we’re living in the future we were sold.

A lot of our futuristic ideas derive from popular culture, but that popular culture has nothing to do with what we can, should, or even may want to do. A lot of or popular culture is what people could sell us or what worked in media of the time. It has nothing to do with the possible or the necessary.

AI? It’s easier to just have Hunky Space Captain talk to the computer, because no one wants to watch someone scroll on a monitor. Besides, it sounds cool. Also if you’re bored eventually the computer can try to murder people as part of the plot, a real horror film twist. But do we need it?

Automated cars are a dream, especially if you’ve ever driven . . . well, anywhere. It’s a dream that’s cool and convenient and doesn’t have messy people, and looks awesome in films. It doesn’t deal with the reality that driving needs a moral actor to make decisions, even if you’re paying them by the mile. Also it doesn’t deal with outages, software updates, and crashes.

Then there’s our phones, our pocket computers. This is a totally understandable dream of course, going back to hand-held sci-fi gizmos and communicators. It’s just we never asked how we’d misuse them, as if people won’t find some weird use for technology five seconds after inventing it.

All of these are things we’ve seen in pop culture media since the 60’s (and I’d argue a lot of what we’re living in is very 80’s). But it’s not stuff from speculative fiction or deep analysis or asking hard questions of what we want and need in the future. It’s stuff that was fun to put into movies, tv, and comics.

That’s it. For many of us, the future we envision is something that was marketable.

So of course all the backfire we’re experiencing is a surprise. We weren’t buying a warning, we were buying a cool experience.

“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam,” said Fredrick Pohl. Indeed it should. It’s just sometimes the warnings don’t sell – and other times people think the warning is cool (see many a stylish dystopia with lots of leather for no reason).

So much of the future that people want – or are trying to sell us at least – seems to just be whatever was laying around in pop culture for a while. It doesn’t have anything to do with speculation, or possibility, or what we need. It’s what many of us assume the future is supposed to be because we bought it.

But what is the future we really want and need? The struggle is to find that, and perhaps in this time where the future we bought is failing us, we have a chance to find it.

Steven Savage